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Fighting the War of Words

The American Revolution, 1760- 1800, was not only a war of weapons but also one of words. Along with swords and guns, the war was fought with pamphlets, speeches, and documents in order to inspire and justify the long awaited battle. Intellectuals such as Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson became important figures of the Revolution due to their literary accomplishments. Henry’s Speech in the Virginia Convention convinced the House of Burgesses that war was inevitable; Paine reached the common people through The Crisis, Number 1 and sparked an inspiration for war; Jefferson justified and announced the war through The Declaration of Independence. By appealing to the emotions of the different Revolutionary audiences, Henry, Paine, and Jefferson made essential contributions to the war using speeches and documents as powerful weapons.

Patrick Henry made a profound speech to the Virginian Convention as the Revolutionary War drew near. His main purpose in the speech was to convince the convention that war was inevitable. He challenged their beliefs and evoked emotion through his argument. In the beginning of his speech, Henry asked “Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation?” (90). This rhetorical question asked if Britain was building up its armies and navies for the sake of peace. Of course Henry knew the opposite was true. The British were preparing for war with the colonies and it was Henry’s intention to convince the convention that the war had already begun. Henry also used repetition when he asked “shall we try argument?”, “shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplications?” (91). By his use of repetition, Henry convinced the convention that America has already tried negotiating with Britain over the injustice and suggested that nothing else can be done to prevent the war. Henry’s purpose for writing became apparent toward the end of the speech when he said “we must fight” and “the war is begun” (92). Since Henry was addressing a highly educated group of people, he made a statement to which they can relate. He also compared America to the men of Greek Mythology who were lured by sirens to their death. Henry suggested that America would experience the same fate if it did not fight for freedom. Finally, his conclusive words made a lasting impression upon the convention and many American descendants to come. Henry said, “I know not course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death” (91). By personalizing this last statement, Henry showed no concern for what others may do, but instead his own determination for freedom. He showed his enthusiasm and patriotism by offering his life in place of liberty. This and many other examples show how Patrick Henry appealed to the intellectuals and evoked their emotion so that they may realize that war was at hand.

Similarly, Thomas Paine spoke to the American people through his written pamphlet, The Crisis, Number 1. This pamphlet addressed the common citizens; it was an appeal to all colonists so that he could encourage them to fight. At the time this pamphlet was written, many Americans felt discouraged and worried about the looming war. In his writing Paine stated “these are the times that try mens souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country, but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman” (95). This was a call to arms for the truly loyal; because these times were hard, it was most important to show loyalty. Paine, wrote his pamphlet in a personal manner soliciting feelings of pity from the colonists. He told a story of a man speaking in a tavern: “If there must be in trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace” (95). This was a call to those with children, to bring out pity for their children and “awaken every man to duty” (95). He provokes the desire for peace in the future, and therefore encourages the colonist to fight. In another similar passage that addressed home life, Paine compared the British to a thief in a house, threatening the safety of home and family, and underlined that men as the head of the household, hold themselves responsible for the security of their home and family. Paine’s analogy put men on the defense, concerned for the well-being of their family. Paine knew his audience well and he understood their common concerns, both for and against the war. Colonists that felt pity from his arguments would begin to take action for the cause. Paine pushed colonists to act in favor of the Revolutionary War by threatening what they held most dear to them.

One of the greatest weapons used in the Revolutionary War was the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson created a document that, with the aid of charged words and fiery accusations, announced to not only England but to the world as a whole, that America wanted to be free. Outlining the reasons as to why the colonies wanted freedom, Jefferson wrote and pointed logically the tyrannies and oppressions dealt on the American people by the King and his government. With these accusations, Americans declared their rationales for wanting revolution. While Henry’s speeches declared war and Paine’s pamphlets raised people to war, Jefferson’s document justified the war that Henry predicted. By stating the horrible actions that King George III took toward the colonists, Jefferson aroused sympathy for America and outlined the grounds for declaring war. Based on these injustices, it was imperative that America fought the war for their freedom. Jefferson and many of his fellow Americans felt that every human being is born with certain rights. Over the course of the colonies’ history, these rights were not being fulfilled by the English government. Jefferson charges that by inciting “treasonable insurrections” to the American people, King George III “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred right of life and liberty” (101). Lashing out against the king, “A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant” (102) and contesting Parliament, Jefferson used very strong words to express the unfairness of England’s actions and behavior. By choosing certain charged words, Jefferson evokes a greater understanding and sympathy for the American position. In some occasions, the committee chosen to draft the document had to use lesser charged words to replace some of Jefferson’s words or phrases that showed particularly strong feelings against the king and Parliament so that the Declaration would justify America without offense to others and to undermine the picture of America that the Continent Congress was trying to achieve. For instance, in paragraph ten, the word obstructed is used to replace suffered because suffered may have offended the king by making him seem even more tyrannical. Thus, by manipulating his words and the feelings of his readers Jefferson created a document that not only explained America’s incentives for war but also aroused sympathy for the American people and their most important cause.

These literary accomplishments produced by Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson inspired and evoked the emotions of not only the intellectual leaders and common people but also the entire world. This technique of playing on the emotions was the basis for the war of words and served as a powerful and valuable weapon in the war itself. Following in the footsteps of the writers of the age, these three prominent figures employed this and many other techniques which ultimately led to the success of the war. Henry does this by stating that war was inevitable; Paine aroused the responsibility of the common people to fight through guilt; Jefferson justified the war to the world through a series of complaints against the actions of King George III which threatened the natural human rights of the American citizens. The use of their inspirational words and the arousal of emotion that they caused formed the United Front of the American colonies. These techniques became the basis for fighting the Revolutionary War and were ultimately responsible for the American victory.

Work Cited:

Hodgins, Francis., et al. Adventures in American Literature. Orlando, San Diego, Chicago, Dallas: HBJ, 1989.


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